It is always a pleasure when a reader wants to know something more about a person mentioned in the Classroom. After profiling Una Mulzac last week, there was a request to know more about her father, because the reader had never heard of him. Well, dear reader, you are not alone on this matter, and it’s a shame that Hugh Mulzac isn’t better known in the annals of history.
To begin at the pinnacle of this seafaring adventurer’s life, when he became the first African-American merchant marine to command a ship with an integrated crew, is but a moment of his remarkable career.
Mulzac was born March 26, 1886, in the British West Indies on the island of St. Vincent. After high school, he answered the siren call of the sea and began traveling on British vessels. In the United Kingdom, he attended the Nautical School in Swansea, earning a mate’s license, or second in command. During World War I, he was a ship’s officer and subsequently moved to the United States, where he became a citizen in 1918.
His passion for the sea continued after arriving in the states, and in 1920, he passed the shipping master’s examination. It was during this same year that he joined Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Garvey immediately appointed him commander of the Black Star Line, his fleet of ships, including the SS Yarmouth, where Mulzac was the chief officer.
From the very start of his association with Garvey, there were problems, several of which Mulzac noted. “The use to which the worthless Black Star ships were put represented the triumph of propaganda over business,” he wrote in his autobiography, “A Star to Steer By” (International Publishers, 1963). “The Yarmouth lost hundreds of thousands of dollars putting into ports where no cargo awaited, and in being chartered below her worth.
“Thus the great and bold dream of colored resurgence ended in catastrophe. For their hard-won dollars, scores of thousands of humble Black men and women received in dividends only a transitory inflation of their racial pride.”
In 1921, Mulzac resigned from the organization and sought to create his own shipping line. That, too, was a failed venture, and for the next 20 years, he worked as a steward on ships while providing for a family that included his daughter Una. Later, he would devote his energy to delivering food and running his nautical academy. He rented three large rooms on St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem, printed up business cards and immediately enrolled 52 students in the academy. But because it was connected to the possibility of the students acquiring employment with the Black Star Line, the students were on a doomed course. Their dreams and Mulzac’s hopes evaporated with the fall of Black Star. However, the advent of World War II brought the ascendance of another star.
Mulzac was 56 in 1942, when the United States Maritime Commission presented him with an opportunity to command the SS Booker T. Washington, the first of several Liberty ships. At first, he refused the offer because he would be in command of essentially an all-Black crew. His situation came to the attention of the NAACP and other civil rights organizations, which sided with Mulzac, demanding the ship be integrated. After sustained pressure from the groups, the commission relented and changed its racial policy, thereby allowing Mulzac to take the helm of an integrated crew from 1942 to 1947.
The memorable day his ship was launched, Mulzac recalled, “Everything I ever was, stood for, fought for, dreamed of, came into focus that day. The concrete evidence of the achievement gives one’s strivings legitimacy, proves that the ambitions were valid, the struggle worthwhile. Being prevented for those 24 years from doing the work for which I was trained had robbed life of its most essential meaning. Now at last I could use my training and capabilities fully. It was like being born anew.”
His appointment was a headline story and was highlighted in Time magazine: “Slight, grizzled Hugh Mulzac, ex-seaman, ex-mess boy, was catapulted front and center last week to become a symbol of Negro participation in the war,” the magazine crowed in October 1942. “When the Liberty freighter Booker T. Washington goes into service from California Shipbuilding’s Los Angeles yard in mid-October, the Maritime Commission decided, she will be commanded by a British West Indies-born Brooklyn man, the first Negro to hold a U.S. master’s certificate and the first to command a 10,500-ton ship.”
During this period, Mulzac at the command of the SS Booker T. Washington and other Liberty ships, made 22 round trips, transporting 18,000 soldiers to battlegrounds in Europe and the Pacific.
After a highly successful stint in the war, Mulzac discovered that very little had changed in civilian life, where he found it impossible to land a job as commander of commercially owned vessels. Now, at 61, he put the seafaring days behind him and leaped full-fledged into radical politics.
In 1950, he was a candidate for Queens borough president, running as a member of the American Labor Party. His 15,000 votes were not enough to win the position. There were more setbacks on the horizon when he was blacklisted because of his affiliation with the American Labor Party. Like so many on the left, he was a victim of the Cold War and the intense witch hunts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. He would seek office again on the Independent Socialist ticket for New York comptroller in 1958, again with no success. By this time, the American Labor Party, led by Vito Marcantonio, was all but dissolved.
Amid court battles, Mulzac busied himself with painting, and at the same time he was testing his political aspirations for state office, 32 of his oil paintings were exhibited during a one-man show at the Countee Cullen Library.
If that exhibit was a success, there was more bad news from the U.S. government—they revoked his seaman’s papers and his license. This action became another highly publicized cause, and almost a decade later a federal judge reinstated his seaman’s documents and his license. Mulzac was 75 when he was able to return to his beloved sea.
Mulzac died in 1971 in New York City. He was 84 and unheralded for his wartime service. However, in 1988, after long court battles, he was awarded an honor for his distinguished service.